TWO PACKED DAYS
It’s two years until the launch of Exploration Mission 1, but Blackwell-Thompson is busier now than she’s ever been in her career. This mission is the first test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, which will set the stage and test the components for sending astronauts to Mars. It’s the most powerful rocket NASA has ever developed, and according to Blackwell-Thompson, “has the capability to take us to deep space, wherever our country might decide to go, whether that’s the moon, Mars or some place entirely different.”
“This first mission is about testing out the capabilities,” she says, “to make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to, so that when we get ready to fly a crew a few years down the road, we’ll be ready to go.”
In the development stage leading up to that launch, Blackwell-Thompson and her team are building new ground equipment and new flight hardware, and making sure it works together. They’re putting “an amazing rocket” together and making sure it’s ready to fly. “There’s a tremendous amount of work in doing that,” she says. “It’s a more brisk pace than I had when we were flying during the shuttle program, and I thought I was really busy then.”
There’s also the coordination of developing different components in three different locations. The flight hardware for the heavy lift rocket is being developed out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Orion, the crew module, is being developed out of Johnson Space Center in Houston. And the hardware and various components are manufactured all across the country.
“For me as launch director,” says Blackwell-Thompson, “I’m also trying to look at how I build this launch team. We have a lot of expertise on the team that worked on the shuttle program, but this is a brand new rocket with brand new ground systems. You have to figure out how to get this team ready to go fly this rocket and make sure they have the expertise they need.”
“There’s a lot that goes into the two days
of launch countdown.”
She begins to tick off some of the many parts of the process: “There is what goes into the launch itself — what does the launch countdown look like, how long is it, what’s the work we need to do, how do we verify it’s ready to fly.” Then there are the launch commit criteria to develop, the set of rules that govern whether or not you’re ready to fly on launch day, and developing launch countdown procedures and timelines.
“Then you have to go practice it,” she says, “and make sure you’re ready for anything that the vehicle might throw at you in a given day. You want to make sure you’ve simulated the
potential problems, and that you run through those anomalies and you know how you’re going to respond to them.”
And then there are launch capabilities: fuel requirements for multiple launch attempts within a given window, imagery of the vehicle that is needed during cryogenic propellant loading and prior to launch, communication across the multitude of NASA centers on launch day, command and control system capabilities to send time-critical commands to the vehicle to get data back to make split-second calls when the countdown clock is moving.
She breathes. “There’s a lot that goes into the two days of launch countdown.”